I hung around the cottage, watching the players materialize from out of thin air. It was kind of cool and something I hadn't done a lot of recently. I made a mental note to do this more often. And then there she was, an invisible presence, sensed rather than seen. A slight shimmer in the air gave her away, she was newly graduated and her inexperience showed. The shimmering grew stronger and she materialised before me, I whistled my appreciation.
"Why thank you kind sir."
"Are you waiting for someone?"
"Yes, but now you've arrived, so I'm not waiting any more."
She laughed; sometimes the sheer corniness of the obvious pick-up lines wins 'em over. "Perhaps I have, but I may not be what you want at all."
All this time other players were appearing and moving away. I looked around, feigning bewilderment.
"Is this your first time?"
"Yes." well it was my first time in this particular persona, so it wasn't a complete lie. "I'd better introduce myself, after that awful pick-up line it's the least I can do." I bowed formally, "I'm Mark, sometimes my friends call me Markie" I held my breath; would I get away with it? My penchant for playing personae with names based on David and Leigh Eddings' characters was well known, so this time I'd used a male character from their latest non-fantasy novel.
"Nice to meet you Mark, I'm Paula"
'... the Witch.' I said to myself.
"Would you like to see some more of the place?"
"That would be cool."
Paula made a complicated pass in the air in front of her and our surroundings faded to be replaced by darkness. I smiled to myself; it was kind of cute that she had forgotten that she had magical sight and that I hadn't. To her credit she realised her mistake almost straight away.
"Ooops, sorry." The blackness was banished and I gasped, this place never ceased to amaze me and seeing it suddenly revealed like that was quite a surprise. We were standing at one end of an enormous cavern. The ceiling far above us glittered, as the light was refracted from thousands of jewels embedded in it.
"Wow! This is fantastic! Say, how did we get here so fast? How did you do that?"
Paula laughed, "Magic."
"Gosh, you're a magic user. Is it hard?"
"Took me three attempts and thousands of hours, but I think it's going to be worth it." She frowned, "Sorry, I shouldn't have said that. Look we're not supposed to talk in game-terms. It's not a rule or anything, but it's considered good manners not to."
I nodded, "Thanks, this is all so new it's kind of embarrassing to get sucked in so easily."
She smiled, "Try to immerse yourself, this can be as real as you want it to be. The main thing though," she looked conspiratorial and whispered, "Is to have fun and lots of it!"
I smiled at her obvious enthusiasm and we walked towards the far end of the cavern. As we reached the halfway mark, it became apparent that we could go no further. A bottomless chasm bisected the cavern; formless mists rose from the chasm and a low moaning seemed to emanate from it also.
"It looks like this is the end of the line." I said.
Paula smiled at me, "You ain't seen nothing yet!" then she wrinkled her brow in concentration and muttered, "it should be around here somewhere." Her face cleared and she smiled in triumph. "Got it!" A rod with a rusty star on one end appeared in her hand and she waved it. I noticed that she had arranged for me to be in position to watch both her and the chasm at the same time. Full marks for artistry. Someone had been at the bridge-building routines and I watched in unsimulated awe as the crystal bridge manifested itself.
"Wow!" I said. Paula was also looking flabbergasted too, but she managed to hide it quite well, when she became aware that I was watching her again. With studied nonchalance she stepped onto the bridge. I coughed.
"Are you sure it's safe?"
"Oh yes it's quite..." she realised that she was still holding the rod with the rusty star. She recovered well, with only the smallest of blushes, as she returned the rod to its previous resting place. Carrying the rod over the crystal bridge was the sort of mistake one was only supposed to make once. "... safe."
I followed her onto the bridge. Pleased that I could be the tourist without having to playact for once, I examined the fine structure of the bridge; I could see that Richard had been playing again. The entire structure was constructed of thin filaments of diamond arranged as endlessly tessellated tetrahedra, had this been a real bridge, for all it's delicate, filigree nature, it would have stood loads of a hundred tons or more. I jumped up and down and the bridge rang and tinkled.
"Come on there's lots more for you to see."
She was a very good guide, she resisted the temptation to show off with her newly acquired Witch-hood and most of her magic was done with straightforward competence that was all the more impressive for it. She was also very conscientious; whenever she 'borrowed' something she always made sure to put it back and if she had to take it from someone else she always returned it and added a few gold coins for the hire also. This girl was one to watch.
Though we didn't broadcast it, one of us would always try out the newly promoted Witches and Wizards - we use the term Wiz as a gender-neutral term - to see if they would make the grade as it were. You see the promotion was automatic, but just because someone had worked at something didn't mean that he, or she, was the sort of person that we wanted running around with fairly extensive powers to cause havoc. Too many MUDs degenerated because the high-level magic users were allowed to cause mayhem unchecked and we weren't about to let it happen to our corner of the MPRPG universe. Anyway as the oldest of the MUDs we had a reputation to uphold; hence the final exam.
So far she was passing with flying colours; she was almost too good to be true. Though I had already checked her account status I initiated another check, just in case and the search showed nothing untoward; all my little agents returned empty-handed. Perhaps it was time for the second stage of my little test. A quick review of my previous responses confirmed to me that I hadn't said much beyond 'Wow!' for some time so I was fairly safe in assigning the Mark persona command stream to my little AI widget that I'd developed specifically for this purpose. It was an extension of Eliza but with a far greater set of premises - even so it was only safe for short periods of time, and extended conversation would pretty soon expose its limitations. So far, all science fiction apart, only humans were capable of passing the Turing test, and not even all of them.
The next bit taxed even my intellect; oh all right I'd probably be better if I had the fabled female ability to multi-task. I reattached my own command processor to the command stream of the killer persona that I had set up earlier. I'd left him sleeping behind a rock just up ahead. Feeling slightly disconnected as I walked into the location and saw Paula and Mark standing looking in awe at the waterfall. I picked up a loose rock and threw it at Mark.
I'd misjudged the AI, it may have been stupid as far as conversation was concerned, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with its reflexes. Shit! I'd forgotten to reset the skill set to match that of the persona I'd been using.
"What the..." Paula watched dumbfounded as Mark literally blazed toward me. Hurriedly I tried to rectify the damage. I triggered a 'Normal Service Will Be Resumed' sky sign - this was sufficiently unusual that Paula ignored me for a few seconds. With this respite I was able to reduce the skill settings on the AI and then switch command streams so that I was, once more, in control of Mark; this left the AI controlling the killer whom I'd called Ug after his caveman qualities. I switched off the sign. Paula eyed the killer with disquiet.
"What just happened?"
Paula turned to me, "I was going to ask you that."
I pretended to think for a bit, actually it wasn't pretence - it was just I was trying to think of something convincing to say to keep her off-guard. Ug came to my rescue metaphorically at least; he started to advance towards us. Without thinking I put myself between Paula and the killer.
"Excuse me." She gently shouldered me aside and pointed her finger at the killer. A bolt of lightning flashed from her fingertip and suddenly the killer was no more. Richard had been 'improving' things again, so my start of fright was not an act. Paula was almost as surprised, but she hid it well. My screw up had altered the parameters of the test, but she had still done pretty well all things considered and so it was time to see how she would do when presented with the ultimate temptation - in game terms that is.
"I'm sorry about that, it's been a strange few minutes altogether. Most people don't attack you for no reason, especially since you're not carrying anything valuable."
.... There is more of this story ...